By Tom Huth,
Our bus pulls up to a brick building with barred windows in the struggling black township of Soweto, another heart-wrenching stop on our Reality Tour of South Africa. It’s Morris Isaacson High School, from which students marched on a June day in 1976 to plead for a humane education, only to be gunned down by the police: shot in the back as they fled.
Today is the last day of school and the kids are all juiced. They horse around outside in noisy groups, still wearing British uniforms. The seniors are signing each other’s shirts with felt-tipped pens. Some of them stop to talk with us. One wants to be a botanist. His friend, more thoughtful, isn’t sure. In 1976 Africans were trained only to be servants for the white economy. But these could be teen-agers anywhere, with futures to behold. Some 800 children died in that uprising, according to our guides, who are people of color themselves. Standing here now–this sunny spring day, the kids so carefree–how can we believe such a thing? “After that,” says William, “South Africa was never the same again. People said: So far, and no further!”
This is a different kind of Africa tour. No game parks, no animals. Stalking people, instead: cross-cultural understanding. We look around the school. In the computer room the teacher says that students love to e-mail teen-agers in other countries, so eager are they to join the big world. But the school ran out of money for the internet fees, because fortune has not followed freedom for the people of South Africa. In a classroom someone has written on the blackboard: How Can a Hungry Teacher Teach a Hungry Student? In another room the lesson: Love Them All, But Trust No One.
“We’ve created moments of darkness and light” is how Clive Newman, our charismatic head guide, describes these tours, which are put together by the human-rights group Global Exchange. As with Reality Tours to other contentious parts of the world, these are educational trips for people who want to really get involved in a nation’s drama–people who, given the choice, would rather hang out with oppressed foreigners than those who are in charge. Clive Newman and his guides are not just witty microphone jocks, but men and women who took part in the resistance against white-separatist rule–a campaign which won out in 1994. Their excitement about helping to build a new nation is sobered by the horrendous indignities of the past. “We are giving you our lived experience,” Clive tells me one night over drinks. “We’ve been beaten; we’ve been jailed. This is our lived experience!” Such a trip, then, becomes a specific kind of holiday–a vacation from the deadening effects of indifference to the less fortunate people of the world. So it should come as no surprise that our group of eight Americans is a teary-eyed gang of aging pinkos, including an inspiring woman of 86 who’s nearly blind but who tape-records everything so she won’t miss a word. For four days in Johannesburg the schedule is rigorous. A human-rights commission briefing; a hospital; Museum Africa; a health clinic; an abused-women’s center. Driving around the city is an education in itself, seeing how the sidewalks of the white business center have become free-form African marketplaces; how settlers have reclaimed abandoned offices and army barracks; how traditional healers have set up shop under an elevated highway. One afternoon we visit the black ghetto of Alexandra, half a million people jammed into one filthy square mile, their shacks patched together from corrugated iron and plywood, with tires on the roofs to keep them from blowing away. Then we tour the rich ghetto of Sandton a mile away, the fine homes barricaded behind electrified fences and razor wire. That night we attend a joyous African dance performance at the Market Theater, and on the way back to our hotel the driver runs all the red lights, as they do now in Jo’burg at night, to outwit the carjackers.
Hope and devolution, darkness and light. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been meeting for five years, its impossible assignment the healing of barbarities hundreds of years old. More than 7,000 policemen and other apparatchiks of the white apartheid state have come before amnesty hearings to confess their crimes against humanity and to ask legal absolution. We attend such a hearing at which four policemen are seeking amnesty for the 1987 disappearance of one Betty Boom, a military operative for the African National Congress, and three of her cadres. A three-man amnesty panel is grilling a small, older man–the only policeman among the accused who is black. He steadfastly denies knowing what happened to Betty Boom and her comrades, despite a vast weight of evidence and presumption that they were executed and buried on a farm. Exasperated, one judge finally says, “Mr. Jantjie, please, we are not children here. You can see how absurd your statement is, can’t you?” At another point he chides, “You’ve got to be joking.” A painful scene: the tables full of lawyers surrounding the little man…his desperate lies, as if he alone were responsible for what happened to his people…the booths full of translators echoing back the testimony in four mutually incomprehensible languages…the relatives of the victims sitting in the front row, straining to understand why the policemen won’t tell them what happened to their loved ones. Later in a stairwell I run into one relative, a large woman with a scarf around her head. “If they were not the judges here I would have beaten him!” she assures me. “We were expecting the truth! We want to know where they are! If they were killed, where are they buried? But we are angry now!” We meet other people who are upset about the reconciliation process because white leaders have shown little willingness to apologize or atone for the past. The best thing South Africa has ever given to the world is the example of forgiveness set by Nelson Mandela in 1990 when he was released from prison after 27 years. Imagine it: dining with the very guards who once confined him. To an amazing extent, the African majority have done their part in the healing process. At amnesty hearings 80% of victims’ families have forgiven the perpetrators. But, as I see in the paper today, the country is still waiting for the appearance of “a white prince of reconciliation”–the white Mandela.
Soweto, 20 miles from downtown, sprawls out under a blanket of smog from a power plant that was built to serve distant white communities. Some 3 million people, from Mandelas to shantytown squatters, live here in South Africa’s soul capital, its Harlem. We tour the Regina Mundi (Queen of the World) church, where services were held for the massacred children in 1976, and where survivors sought sanctuary from the police. An elderly caretaker shows us the bullet holes in the ceiling, the corner broken off the altar by a rifle butt. We tour the two-bedroom, red-brick house where Winnie Mandela endured the years of her husband’s imprisonment, sleeping on the kitchen floor to survive the many assassination attempts by government snipers. Just when we’re getting depressed about the human condition, Clive takes us to lunch at a bright little Soweto cafe, The Rock Pub & Grill, which has folk art on the walls, ESPN on the tube, and Capetown jazz in the air. The owner, Tebogo Motswai, is young and upbeat and empowered, a dropped-out BMW engineer who’s starting a chain of these grills. “Making friends every day,” he’s happy to tell us. “We’re a recognized brand.” He shows me around his dusty but enterprising neighborhood. To one side is a room-sized shipping container where people who can’t afford phones are lined up to make cellular calls. Nearer to the road, a guy working out of his van is set up to repair mufflers. In the shade of a billboard, a refugee from Mozambique sits in a discarded car seat offering to do shoe repair. “Soweto has always set the pace,” says Tebogo Motswai. “In the white areas the walls are so high you don’t even know your neighbors. Here, we know you.” An old man who sells coal plods past in his horse-drawn cart. Someone pulls up in a flashy Honda sports coupe and the homeys all cluster around; it’s one of South Africa’s biggest soccer stars. “We call it the ubuntu concept,” Tebogo tells me. “Ubuntu?” “Humanity,” he says. “It means, if I have a party, you don’t need an invitation.”
We fly south for an hour and a half to rural Umtata, then drive into the hills through forests of long-needled pines to the village of Mbolompo, which rarely sees foreigners. Two or three times a year a Reality Tour comes to visit with the clan of a Mr. Bam, and when the women spot our bus coming they start singing and dancing a welcome song outside their thatch-roofed huts. Mr. Bam is a man of some years with a deeply lined face and a coonskin cap like Davy Crockett’s. He leads us on a walk down to the community garden, pointing out the mountain valley where they had always lived until the white government declared it a tree farm and trucked them down here to fend for themselves. Mr. Bam is proud of the garden, which was started with a grant from the Netherlands. Peanuts, cabbage, spinach, green peppers. In the beginning, he says, thirty people tended the garden. But it’s hard work, carrying water up from the river, and now only eight people are left. I ask him if he’ll let all thirty of them share in the harvest and he laughs. “No, no, I go to fence and say, ‘Give me money.’ Because they run away!” Potatoes, onions, carrots, chilis, tomatoes. In any case, Mr. Bam has bigger things to worry about. He confides to me that other clans in the village are jealous because of his garden, and because he filed a claim to get his old land back without going through the chief. “Headman want to kill me!” he exclaims. He demonstrates, comically, how he dodges the bullets. “God protect me!” he exults. “Bullet can’t come to me!” Later we sit down for a lunch they’ve prepared. The village women are all giggly as we eat together inside a dirt-floored hut. Then we unload the crates of food we’ve brought in payment for their hospitality: sugar, flour, rice, corn. We take their pictures, and they dance again, and this time we dance with them. But our mission to Mbolompo is not over. We’ve gotten word that the chief himself wants to see us. So we drive to his part of the village, and are greeted again by dancing, singing black women in their Sunday best, straight out of 1890s Mississippi. They seat us on chairs in the chief’s yard. Then an older woman steps forward–the village speaker, it seems. “Sometimes we see airplanes fly over!” she cries out, gesturing to the sky. “But we never DREAMED that some day people would COME HERE from AMERICA!” With melodramatic animation, she goes on to tell us that her clan wants its own community garden, “so we can sell and get money–AND BE LIKE EVERYBODY!” She begs us to understand how industrious but poor they are: “We know how to bake! But we have no goods! We have a preschool! But nothing where children to play! We have a sewing project! But not enough maa-sheens!” And in case we’ve missed the point she shouts in conclusion, “WE HAVE A LACK OF CASH HERE! WILL YOU BOOST US TO A GOOD STANDARD?” We applaud her showmanship, although we’re not used to being hit up so brazenly. Then Clive suggests, tactfully, that if the women have some of their fine products to sell the Americans might be interested. So we buy a few baskets and dresses–the first crafts they’ve ever exchanged for money. The transaction is so innocent, both sides are delighted with the prices. Then they feed us, and we hobnob with the chief: a roly-poly man who (we learn later) took the government reparations payments meant for the village and bought himself a fleet of taxis in Umtata.
Laughter and tears. Darkness and light. We drive through rolling green hills to the cemetery where lies Steve Biko, who proclaimed black consciousness in the ’70s. Clive, who’s usually so gregarious, walks ahead on his own to the marble slab. There he tells us: “Steve Biko taught us that black is beautiful, regardless of what the white people were doing to us–that we should be proud. We should stand up high, at a time when we were being followed day and night…having flowers and coffins delivered to our houses…seeing hearses drive up and down the street…hearing perverse laughter over the phone.” It’s plain, by the tremor in his voice, that he can forgive all he wants, but he’ll never forget. “At a dark time,” he says, “when we could have given up the struggle, Steve Biko said, ‘You have an identity.’” For that the police arrested Biko, stripped him naked, chained him to a chair, and beat him to death. Capetown is our last stop, a cosmopolitan city pinched gorgeously between mountain and sea. We visit some optimistic development projects in the pitiful suburban squattertowns. We spend a pleasant Sunday at a barbecue cookoff with some working-class families, and a morning in Pollsmoor Prison meeting common criminals. One day we even join a march through the streets to protest unfair bank practices, waving signs that read, MAKE BANKS SERVE THE POOR!, gladly meddling in other peoples’ affairs. We visit museums and shrines to the atrocities of apartheid: the different mass murders, the forced removal of 60,000 people from District Six, the migrant-labor slums of Lwandle. A poem at one memorial begins: Remember to call at my grave when freedom finally walks the land… To white South Africas who say, “Forget about the past,” these museums reply: We can’t forget, lest it happen again. We take a ferry out to Robben Island, the political prison where Nelson Mandela spent most of his years. Now it’s a big tourist attraction, and our guide is a former inmate himself. A squat, graying man, he calmly describes how they were beaten with pick handles, or buried in sand up to their necks and urinated upon. “The warders,” he says, “never got tired of punishing us.” Now, he admits, he hates coming back here to lead these tours. His nightmares have returned. But it’s hard to find a job these days, and he has a family to feed. It is the accumulation of all of these poignant moments, day after day, which has made this tour such a moving experience, unlike any trip I’ve ever taken. As a musician named Mack tells me in Capetown: “Every person you see is a survivor, and every survivor is a superstar.” In the end, at the Cape of Good Hope, we do run into four ostriches stilting along the beach like prehistoric creatures. But how can mere wildlife satisfy us now?
Tags: South Africa
Posted on: October 20, 2000